The Bell 47 helicopter I’m riding shotgun in can barely keep pace with the powerful speedboat below. In the cockpit of the late model Donzi are sacks of what appear to be colourfully wrapped boxes of various sizes. No doubt meant to look like Christmas gifts to all but the most trained eye. I’ve been hired by the American Drug Enforcement Agency to intercept and detain their number one suspected narcotics courier. Failing that, we are to scuttle the boat and terminate it’s driver.
The bright red speedboat stands out against the blue green Atlantic ocean as it slices through the waves. We pick up the chase, during the weekly run from Baffin Bay to Galveston, off the coast of Georgia, U.S. America. His red stocking cap fluttering in the wind, the DEA suspect is resplendent in bright red shorts and a red and white Hawaiian shirt. When he turns his head up at us after seeing the chopper’s shadow cross his bow, I see it’s Cringle! Quick as a wink, Claus steers his craft hard right, west, toward the mainland. “Damn it, he’s heading for the Intercostal Waterway!”, the DEA pilot exclaims over the headphones, “We’re going to lose him!” Deftly manoeuvring the forty three foot long speeding boat past pleasure and commercial vessels, Kris shows no sign of slowing down. Ninety two miles per hour, no regard to the established ICW speed limit, Santa slices past cabin cruisers with the precision of a surgeon carving a Christmas turkey. Whenever openings between cruisers and yachts aren’t wide enough for passage, Sinterklaas waves his hand as if using some sort of Jedi power to push the vessels apart. Remarkably, it works.
Burt, the DEA pilot is working up a sweat, doggedly keeping on Santa’s tail while watching for and dodging the myriad of local aircraft and drone activity. More than once I hear the “Thwack” of some fishing boat’s VHF antenna striking the fuselage of the chopper as Burt dives to avoid hobbyist drones. “They’re worse than kites, but at least there’s no strings to untangle from the rotor, later”, the pilot remarks unprompted. “Holy shi…”, the pilot’s words cut off as he as he pulls the cyclic hard right to avoid what looks like a toy rocket shooting past. “Is he firing at us?!”, the DEA pilot jams both the cyclic and collective forward to avoid another rocket. “Thwack”, another VHF aerial, this one cracks the Lexan bubble below our feet. Burt climbs the chopper a little higher this time while dropping back, out of range of the toy rockets. “Get your gun ready, we’ll get this guy for once and all in the ‘Glades”, Burt directs.
The Everglades are vast tropical wetlands spanning the southern tip of Florida. Populated sparsely by game hunting rednecks, alligators are the predominant species. Having no love for government oversight, these Florida Everglades locals are as likely to shoot at low flying DEP and DEA aircraft as not. “Maybe we’ll get lucky and he’ll run over a ‘gator and trash his running gear”, Burt mentions optimistically.
Cringle carves through the meandering channels at top speed, administering the Donzi with the accuracy of a race car driver. “Crap, lost him”, swears the pilot. “Over there”, I reply, pointing, “he’s stopped, next to that air boat”. Circling the chopper around, the DEA pilot crabs the bird sideways into the wind to give me a clear shot. I level the scope-less Ruger Carbine Semi Auto 44 at the mark, aiming as carefully as the moving helicopter allows and squeeze the trigger. Drat, the first shot is a little high and wide, it punches a hole through the air boat’s wooden propeller. OK, I’ll just adjust the sights a li… “I’m hit! I’m hit!” I scream at Burt through the headset as I become acutely aware of a searing pain in my leg. Burt swings the bird hard over the other way, as he does, I see the cause of my injustice; Gator Pete.
His trusty 357 Magnum in his one hand, still levelled in our direction, he continues his conversation with Claus. Once out of range, I inspect my wound, it’s merely a grazing, a pretty deep one, but no entry. I patch up my leg with some of the duct tape I always keep in my pocket. I sign to the DEA pilot to circle around for another try. I going to get that bastard Claus, even if it kills me. Before we get back to the boats, Santa is balls to the wall off again, knocking Gator Pete off his boat with the wake. Serves him right, abetting Claus in his criminal network; I always knew he was crooked, in addition to being lopsided.
Like shot from a gun, Cringle blasts from the Everglades into open water, The Gulf of Mexico. “He’s headed for the panhandle”, reports the pilot, “if he gets to a bayou, we’ll loose him under the canopy”. “Got it”, my determined reply. With the wind buffeting the chopper and Claus pounding his boat in the following sea, a clear shot directly at the target is improbable. Instead, my aim is directed at the engine compartment and by chance the fuel tanks. I begin to fire single shot after shot, reloading as I go, at the red speedboat below.
About halfway through the box of ammunition we see smoke billowing from the holes I made in the Donzi’s engine bay. “You must have killed one of the engines, he’s slowing down”, Burt didn’t need to say. Cringle begins firing wildly at us with a Desert Eagle, shooting over his shoulder with one hand as he steers the boat with the other. At least one of the rounds hits something important, “Swine hund!” Burt swears again, “We’re hit! We’re hit! We have to break off”. Amid the sounding of cautionary alarms and alarming flashing of indicators, I attempt a few last shots just before Santa disappears under a bayou canopy, but the angle is too obtuse and all I kill is water. DEA pilot Burt beelines it for Eglin Air Force Base.
Any aircraft landing you walk away from is a ‘good’ landing, this hard landing stretched that adage a bit. Walking from the crippled bird, the pilot stares in bewilderment at me as I think aloud that I’ve come to reconsider the whole Santa Claus is evil thing. In fact, I think I’ll even leave a glass of milk and plate of cookies for the Jolly Old Elf by the fireplace this year. Fishing my sat-phone from the breast pocket of my sport coat, I hit speed dial number two. Hello, Capucine?